Wild Horses

CHAPTER 1

Dying slowly of bone cancer, the old man, shrivelled now, sat as ever in his great armchair, tears of lonely pain sliding down crepuscular cheeks.

That Tuesday, his last, his stringy grip on my wrist tightened convulsively in a long silence while I watched his mouth tremble and move in abortive struggles to speak.

‘Father.’ The words finally wavered out; a whisper, desperate, driven by ultimate need. ‘Father, I must make my confession. I must ask… absolution.’

In great surprise and with compassion I said, ‘But… I’m not a priest.’

He paid no attention. The feeble voice, a truer measure of affairs than the fiercely clutching hand, simply repeated, ‘Father… forgive me.’

‘Valentine,’ I said reasonably, ‘I’m Thomas. Thomas Lyon. Don’t you remember? I’ve come to read to you.’

He could no longer see newsprint or anything straight ahead, though peripheral vision partly remained. I called in more or less every week, both to keep him up to date with the racing columns in the newspapers and also to let his beleaguered and chronically tired old sister go out for shopping and gossip.

I hadn’t actually read to him on that day. When I arrived he’d been suffering badly from one of his intermittent bouts of agony, with Dorothea, his sister, feeding him a teaspoon of liquid morphine and giving him whisky and water to help the numbness work faster.

He hadn’t felt well enough for the racing papers.

‘Just sit with him,’ Dorothea begged. ‘How long can you stay?’

‘Two hours.’

She’d kissed me gratefully on the cheek, stretching on tiptoes, and had hurried away, plump in her late seventies, forthright in mind.

I sat as usual on a tapestry stool right beside the old man, as he liked the physical contact, as if to make up for sight.

The fluttery voice persisted, creeping effortfully into the quiet room, determined and intimate. ‘I confess to God Almighty and to Thee, my Father, that I have sinned exceedingly… and I must confess… before… before…’

‘Valentine,’ I repeated more sharply, ‘I’m not a priest.’

It was as if he hadn’t heard. He seemed to be focussing all the energy left in him into one extraordinary spiritual gamble, a last throw of hell-defeating dice on the brink of the abyss.

‘I ask pardon for my mortal sin… I ask peace with God…’

I protested no more. The old man knew he was dying; knew death was near. In earlier weeks he had discussed with equanimity, and even with humour, his lack of a future. He had reminisced about his long life. He’d told me he had left me all his books in his will. Never had he made any mention of even the most rudimentary religious belief, except to remark once that the idea of life after death was a load of superstitious twaddle.

I hadn’t known he was a Roman Catholic.

‘I confess,’ he said, ‘… that I killed him… God, forgive me. I humbly ask pardon… I pray to God Almighty to have mercy on me…’

‘Valentine…’

‘I left the knife with Derry and I killed the Cornish boy and I’ve never said a word about that week and I accuse myself… and I lied about everything… mea culpa… I’ve done such harm… I destroyed their lives… and they didn’t know, they went on liking me… I despise myself… all this time. Father, give me a penance… and say the words… say them… ego te absolvo… I forgive your sins in the name of the Father… I beg you… I beg you…’

I had never heard of the sins he was talking about. His words tumbled out as if on the edge of delirium, making no cohesive sense. I thought it most